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White House and Republicans in Congress locked in dispute over Cuba travel.

WASHINGTON --Congress began another assault on US restrictions on travel to Cuba as President George W. Bush appeared to crack down on illegal travel to the island.

In late July, Rep. Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona, led the charge against the embargo's prohibition on spending money on travel to Cuba with an amendment to the $33 billion bill that will fund the Treasury Department, the postal service and other agencies next year. The amendment, approved on a 240-186 vote, would strip the Treasury Department of money to enforce the travel regulations but would leave the ban on most American travel to Cuba in place. Sixty-seven Republicans joined 172 Democrats in voting for the amendment.

The vote on the travel amendment came after a failed effort by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) to lift all economic sanctions on Cuba. The vote was 227-201.

Flakes's effort was modeled after a similar amendment sponsored by conservative Republicans and approved by the House last year. Last year's vote was seen as symbolic, a rebellion against House Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) who had weakened legislation to allow the first US agricultural sales to Cuba in nearly 40 year.

To placate Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Republicans who represent Miami districts, DeLay insisted that the provision that allowed food sales to Cuba include a restriction on private or government financing of those sales.

DeLay also insisted on a measure that stripped the president of his authority to allow more US travel to Cuba. It codified the 12 existing categories of Americans -including journalists, Cuban-Americans, academic researchers and amateur athletes - who are allowed travel under Treasury Department licenses and added another category, farmers seeking to make sales.

Flake - a libertarian in many respects - adopted the Cuba issue on ideological principles. He and other conservatives in his party don't believe the US government should be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel.

Other lawmakers who supported Flake are sensitive to polls that show majorities believe Americans should be allowed to visit Cuba. It is estimated that as many as 50,000 Americans traveled to the island illegally last year.

But Bush appears to be cracking down on illegal Cuba travel. He promised greater enforcement of travel restrictions to Cuban-American voters who support the embargo -even though about 120,000 exiles used their special status to travel to the island legally last year.

Enforcement efforts are tougher

In the last few months, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has reportedly sent hundreds of letters to Americans who visited Cuba warning them they may have violated US embargo laws. Last year, OFAC sent out relatively few of these letters, which are the first step in an enforcement process.

Caught up in the sweep were several prominent entertainment moguls, including CBS head Leslie Moonves, MTV chief executive Tom Freston and Vanity Fair magazine editor Graydon Carter. The executives had visited Havana for four days in February and had a private dinner with Fidel Castro.

Anna Liza Gavieres, a legal aide for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said her organization has seen a sharp rise in the number of requests for legal help from people who received OFAC letters. The center, the National Lawyers Guild and Global Exchange, a California-based group that has itself been put on notice by OFAC about its group trips to Cuba, are offering pro-bono legal aid to people who've run into trouble because they visited Cuba. Most people who are determined to have violated the embargo receive penalties of $7,500, but the maximum fine is $55,000.

Senate may be tougher sell for Bush

Bush's get-tough policy may be short lived.

When Congress returns from its summer break in September, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) plans to include a provision in the Senate's Treasury spending bill that would lift Cuba travel restrictions. His efforts are supported by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). "I just sense that there is a growing momentum behind taking small actions like this," Daschle said.

Even Senate Minority Leader Trent Loth (R-MS), a staunch embargo supporter, said the Senate may have to bow to reality and lift the travel portion of the sanctions. "People are traveling there now,' he recently said.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), a longtime opponent of the embargo, also plans to introduce legislation that would end the travel ban.

Even without Senate action, the Flake amendment could still become part of the Treasury spending bill if it survives a conference on a final version of the bill between the House and Senate.

But the legal consequences of the Flake amendment are unclear. If his legislation became law, travel to Cuba would still be illegal, and other federal law enforcement agents could theoretically replace the Treasury Department as enforcers of the travel sanctions.

In addition, some say the Flake amendment would prevent OFAC from issuing travel licenses - as well as policing the embargo.

The White House said it would not accept any easing of sanctions, raising the possibility that Bush may veto the Treasury spending bill.
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Title Annotation:efforts to limit illegal travel to Cuba
Publication:America's Insider
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 30, 2001
Previous Article:Sales figures show Mexican economy continues to weaken.
Next Article:Opposition protests against cuts.

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